Violence in Congo Threatens Fight Against Ebola

Violence in Congo Threatens Fight Against Ebola

After attacks on two Ebola treatment centers in Democratic Republic of Congo last week, Doctors Without Borders says public health workers are “failing” to control the epidemic.

Mar 7, 2019
Jef Akst

ABOVE: A checkpoint set up in Port Loko, Sierra Leone, during an outbreak of Ebola that started in 2014. Photo taken May 20, 2015.
© ISTOCK.COM, HARRY1978

Medecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) was forced to pause its work at two treatment centers in the heart of a current Ebola outbreak in Democratic Republic of Congo after they were badly damaged by two separate attacks. As a result of such violence, the “Ebola response [is] failing to gain the upper hand on the epidemic,” the organization says in a press release.

The outbreak, which began last August, has killed at least 569 people, according to the World Health Organization.

In speaking with reporters today (March 7), MSF’s International President Joanne Liu describes the current atmosphere as “toxic” due to the lack of trust the community has in public health authorities, Reuters reports. To date, there have been more than 30 incidents targeted against the ongoing Ebola response efforts, adds Liu, who cites the use of force to administer treatment and vaccines as part of the problem.

“There is a lot of militarization of the Ebola response,” she told reporters, according to Reuters. “Using police to force people into complying with health measures is not only unethical, it’s totally counterproductive. The communities are not the enemy.”

See “New Ebola Outbreak in Democratic Republic of Congo

Jessica Ilunga, a spokesperson for Democratic Republic of Congo’s Health Ministry, tells Reuters that security personnel, who were requested by MSF before returning to facilities damaged by the recent attack, are involved merely to ensure everyone’s safety. “The police and the army are not involved in Ebola response activities and their role has never been to enforce sanitary measures.”

Another source of distrust, says Liu, is what happens to the dead. “[Villagers] see their relatives sprayed with chlorine and wrapped in plastic bags, buried without ceremony. Then they see their possessions burned,” she says.

Liu estimates that 40 percent of Ebola-related deaths have taken place outside medical centers, pointing to locals’ aversion to seeking care. Moreover, she adds, 35 percent of new cases of Ebola couldn’t be tracked to existing cases, meaning researchers do not have a good handle on how the disease is spreading.

“Ebola still has the upper hand,” Liu says.